• New Muslim rebel front calls for revived talks with Thailand

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    KUALA LUMPUR: A new umbrella group of Muslim rebels who are waging a bloody insurgency in southern Thailand called Thursday for a resumption of stalled peace talks but it was unclear whether the Thai military junta would recognize them.

    Representatives of Mara Pattani, which claims to speak for six of the insurgency’s leading rebel organisations, said they met Thai officials during exploratory talks in Malaysia this week.

    “Our principle is to find a solution through peaceful dialogue,” Awang Jabat, the group’s chairman, told reporters during a briefing on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

    “We hope we can bring the conflict to an end and promote a lasting peace.”

    He said Thai representatives at this week’s dialogue were noncommittal, saying they had to consult with junta leaders.

    But junta spokesman Werachon Sukhondhapatipak, in comments to AFP in Bangkok, appeared to cast doubt on a speedy resumption of peace talks.

    “(The peace talks) are an issue for the security agencies. Don’t give any importance to brand new organisations,” he said.

    A decade-long insurgency has seen near-daily bombings, shootings and occasional beheadings in three southern Thai states including Pattani.

    Many people in the Muslim-majority border region have a greater cultural affinity to neighbouring Malaysia, which also is predominantly Muslim.

    A range of shadowy groups are fighting for a level of autonomy from Thailand, which is mostly Buddhist. More than 6,400 people have been killed, the majority of them civilians.

    Rights organisations accuse Thai authorities of widespread human rights abuses including extra-judicial killings, and sweeping aside the area’s distinct local culture.

    Malaysia hosted several rounds of peace talks in 2013 between one insurgent group and a previous Thai government.

    But the dialogue made little headway and was cut off by a Thai political crisis that culminated in a May 2014 army coup.

    Experts on the conflict say the peace effort has been hampered by divisions within insurgent groups and doubts over whether the rebel negotiators in the previous talks — from the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) — truly represented fighters on the ground.

    Awang Jabat, however, said Mara Pattani includes the BRN along with five other factions.

    During their contacts with the Thai officials this week Mara Pattani asked for immunity for rebels over past violence as a condition for resuming talks.

    That proposal, however, has previously been met coolly by the junta, which has thus far shown an unwillingness to compromise, undercutting hopes of resuming full negotiations.

    The insurgents also said peace talks should be enshrined by the Thai parliament as a national objective, to avoid future negotiations being scuppered again by government changes in Bangkok.

    AFP

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